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Review: "The Iron Lady" is boring and sloppy

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
January 4, 2012 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
Meryl Streep portrays Margaret Thatcher in
Meryl Streep portrays Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The subject is Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain's first female prime minister
  • Thatcher is positioned as the lone female voice against the hoards of braying male MPs
  • Film occasionally strays from what is generally regarded as the truth

(CNN) -- Much like Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" before it, Phyllida Lloyd"The Iron Lady" (from a script by "Shame" writer Abi Morgan) fails partly due to its attempt at covering the entire life of a controversial figure by taking a rather dull, middle of the road position on their life and partly by whitewashing what that person did.

In this case, the subject is Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain's first (and to date, only) female Prime Minister and the first female head of state of any Western industrialized nation.

Her rise to power from grocer's daughter to the leader of one of the most powerful nations on Earth is almost fairytale-like. It is a story that likely caused any number of young women around the world to re-evaluate their positions in society. Unfortunately, "The Iron Lady" is not the rousing feminist call to action that it may seem.

It is, in fact, something quite the opposite.

Thatcher is positioned as the lone female voice against the hoards of braying and guffawing male MPs and thus, anyone who speaks against her, must by definition be a misogynist troglodyte. All of the opposition's speeches in Parliament are portrayed as sexist snipes (of which I am sure there were many) but the idea that there was actually political ideology behind the cat calls and derogatory comments (not to mention opposition speeches that weren't directed at her gender) is pretty much ignored.

'The Iron Lady' ruffles feathers

One particularly galling sequence juxtaposes stock footage of scenes of civil unrest and London streets filling with garbage due to a sanitation workers strike with some rousing conservative speeches by Thatcher, thus implying that if you're not with Thatcher, the alternative is chaos and violence.

While the film is not as spectacularly bad as "J. Edgar," it does suffer from the same sort of hagiography that plagued that film. While Thatcher is certainly to be admired as a strong woman who smashed through centuries of male-dominated global politics, many also hold her responsible for more than her fair share of mistakes perpetrated on British society, political prisoners and arguably, the Argentine Navy.

The leader has been criticized for her handling of violence in Northern Ireland, several crippling labor strikes and her decision to enter into war with Argentina over that country's invasion of the British-owned Falkland Islands in 1982.

Of all of this, only the Falklands War receives much attention in the film (notwithstanding the aforementioned stock footage) and the veracity of some of what the film says about the war is debatable. For a film about arguably the most important female political leader since Queen Elizabeth I, "The Iron Lady" is shockingly bereft of politics.

Another thing the film has in common with the aforementioned Eastwood film is that it is, by and large, rather boring and not only that, speculative. Here is a woman who lived and ruled during a time of social and political upheaval both in Great Britain and around the world, but the film barely acknowledges that and what it does portray occasionally strays from what is generally regarded as the truth. The fact that events are presented as the memories of an increasingly foggy mind doesn't excuse this.

Amid all the negatives, one hugely positive thing that can be said about "The Iron Lady" is that Meryl Streep gives an exceptional performance. Her accent is spot on and she really does look the part. But however great those aspects are, they are purely cosmetic, after all. What really sets Streep apart from other actors playing older this year (ahem) are her body language and voice.

When playing the middle-aged Thatcher (54, when she was first elected prime minister), Streep is actually playing six years her own junior, but you wouldn't know it, given the rather stodgy and conservative manner of her subject. It is here that Streep has the most scenery to chew as the woman who earned the titular nickname, giving speeches and going toe-to-toe with both her Labour Party adversaries and occasionally, her increasingly marginalized husband Sir Denis Thatcher (an excellent Jim Broadbent).

However, it is as the older, at times doddering, Thatcher that Streep does the more subtle and to me, affecting work. She shrinks and stoops and putters around, hallucinating (and arguing with) the ghost of her long-dead husband, but is never far from the younger, more vibrant and fiery politician of the 1980s. She's a semi-befuddled old woman who is slowly dipping into senility and knows it. It is at times, a heartbreaking portrayal.

The Iron Lady is rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned). I can't imagine anyone under the age of 30 being remotely interested in this film, so there's not much to "caution" parents about.

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